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Commentary: Why is the State Fair Such a Big Deal in Indiana?

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Well, we did it again; we survived another 17 days of more food, more fun, more tired — also known as the Indiana State Fair. If you are involved in agriculture in Indiana, the chances are good that you or someone you know spent time at the State Fair. Out of state friends and colleagues often ask me why the Fair is such a big deal in Indiana.

Many other states have state fairs, but in only a few cases are those as big a deal as the Fair is in Indiana. Year after year over 10% of the entire population of the Hoosier State visit the State Fair. Most years, the Fair makes a profit or at least breaks even. What other arm of state government can make that claim? So, what is it about the Fair that makes it so popular and sustainable?

I would like to postulate the notion that agriculture is one of the main reasons our State Fair is such a success. While other states have livestock, 4-H, and agricultural exhibits and attractions, the Indiana State Fair has been built on the bedrock of the state’s agricultural heritage. In addition, most of the people who plan, manage, and oversee the fair are farmers or at least involved in agriculture.  Whenever buildings are renovated or infrastructure updated at the fairgrounds, agriculture is at the table and has a voice.

Why are ag groups and farm folks so passionate about the fair? Tradition and heritage are part of it, but I think it is primarily because of how they view the Fair. They see it as not just an entertainment venue or nostalgic celebration of agriculture, but rather a major educational outreach to the non-farm public.  Unlike Missouri where the fair is out in the country far from Kansas City or St. Louis, the Indiana State Fair takes place in the heart of a major urban area. The vast majority of those who attend the Fair are not farm folks; and most of the agriculturally-oriented exhibits at the Fair are not aimed at farmers, but rather at non-farmers. The Glass Barn, Farm Bureau’s Taste of Indiana Farms, the Pathway to Water Quality, Pioneer Village, and the new Animal Town are all efforts to build awareness and understanding about agriculture with the general public.

This year, the main attraction of the Fair, the circus, was placed on the north side of the fairgrounds where most of the ag educational exhibits are.  This brought many Fair visitors who never make it out of the midway to the north side. Several of the agricultural exhibits, including the FFA, the Glass Barn, and the Farm Bureau areas, have reported a significant increase in traffic this year. Many of these circus visitors discovered the REAL greatest show on earth: agriculture.

The Fair has had its share of hard times; but in those times when attendance was down and funding dried up, it was the continued strong support of agriculture that kept things going. It was agricultural forces that lobbied lawmakers to provide the kind of support needed to restore the Fair and fairgrounds. And, to their credit, the legislature has kept a hands-off approach, not using the Fair as a political prize or patronage tool.

 

It is important that agriculture continue to be a strong supporter of the Indiana State Fair.  The job of informing and educating the public about agriculture is never-ending. The Fair is not perfect and has its critics, both inside and outside of agriculture. Yet, with continued strong support and fresh ideas, the Indiana State Fair can continue to be unique among state fairs and continue to be a success for generations to come.

By Gary Truitt